With Maggie Chaplin
Have you joined the fig fan club? The fig in all its guises is very popular at the moment, or, as one might say, trending. Fig trees have featured in many grand Four Shires gardens, both public and private, for several years, but recently they’ve been appearing in more modest surroundings. Many of us like to introduce a Mediterranean feel to our patios and nothing does it better than a fig tree in a big rustic pot. It has pale grey bark, attractive deeply lobed leaves and if you’re lucky it’ll produce fruit.
The fig is not a true fruit but is formed from a hollow-ended stem containing multiple flowers. You’ll never see blossom on a fig tree, but this unusual feature adds to the plants attraction. The first figs to be grown in England were probably those imported by the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Reginald Pole in the 16th century and planted in the courtyard of Lambeth Palace. The Romans had probably tried to raise them here but their efforts were probably defeated by the climate because there’s no evidence they succeeded.
A plant that was once only accessible to the well-to-do is now one that we can all grow, although fig trees need a sheltered spot, preferably against a south-facing wall. The Brown Turkey variety which is the one most commonly sold in the UK, has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit and very recently was recommended by Alan Titchmarsh as Waitrose’s “Plant of the Week.” You can buy them in store or online, as well as from many local garden centres.
Will you get edible fruit from your outdoor fig tree? If the winter is mild and the summer warm, yes, but although the tree itself will survive the cold, in adverse conditions any formed fruit will rot and drop. If you don’t get fruit, the leaves apparently contain enzymes that help to tenderise meat, so you can wrap your steak in them before grilling.
Of course, if you don’t mind having grey shrouded shapes looming in the garden during the cold dark months you can swathe your trees in protective fleece, or if you’re really keen and have the space you could give up the greenhouse to fig culture. Whatever method you choose, to get a good crop you’ll need to restrict the roots, so a pot is ideal, and figs are delicious but most people just grow them for their looks.
Brown Turkey figs have a purplish brown skin, a pale pink centre and are good to eat just as they are. They have a subtle semi-sweet taste that lends itself to blend in both sweet and savoury dishes, and recipes for starters, salads and delicious puddings that include figs, abound online and in cookery books and magazines.
Fresh figs don’t travel well, which is why they are commonly dried before transport. A dried fig is tasty in its own right but a world away from a fresh one. Until the late twentieth century one’s acquaintance with the fig was largely limited to rather unappetising solid chewy blocks of dried figs, gooey-centred pastries called fig rolls, or the dreaded brown laxative jollop, California Syrup of Figs. What a difference speedy and refrigerated transport makes! These days even if you don’t grow your own, you can buy fresh figs from all the major supermarkets. Dried fig blocks, fig rolls and laxative syrup are, however, still available.
There’s more to fig trees than their looks. They were among the first plants to be cultivated by humans and if true, this predates the domestication of grain crops such as wheat and barley and of beans and other legumes. Archaeological evidence suggests that in the Jordan Valley, ancient man was growing a type of fig as long ago as 9,400 years BC.
Our ancestors used figs not only for food but also for their medicinal properties to treat a variety of ills, not just as a laxative. In Ancient Greece the fruit was prescribed for coughs and laryngitis and in 17th century England Nicholas Culpepper in his famous herbal recommended sucking a dried fig to soothe a sore throat. He also recommended the leaves as a useful poultice for wounds and bruises, and the irritant milky sap as a treatment for warts. Apparently figs and fig extracts were also used as a household remedy for kidney and bladder stones but on what medical basis is unknown. Rumour has it that in certain areas of the Arabic world fresh figs are considered to have aphrodisiac properties.
Whether fresh, dried, tinned or made into jam, figs have a reputation for being a health food, and in our diet conscious age it’s useful to know that they’re a good source, not only of dietary fibre, but also of vitamins B, C and K and several important minerals.
Today there are hundreds of varieties of fig, but the commonest culinary ones are the Calymyrna (or Smyrna) fig, the Kadota fig and the Brown Turkey fig. The fresh figs available in the UK are likely to be Brown Turkey figs, the same variety you might grow in your garden. If you like the delicious pale green tinned ones, those will be Kadota figs, and the most common dried variety is the Calimyrna or Smyrna. These are still sold in oblong blocks and in the more visually appealing “wheels”, but supermarkets often sell their own brands partially rehydrated. These don’t keep as well, but being plump and moist are more appetising.
The world fig market is now big business. In 2016 world production of raw figs was over a million tones – the largest producers being Turkey, Egypt and Algeria. Not all of this output serves the food market. There’s a mind-boggling range of other fig related products you can buy. There are, of course, various fig confections such as chocolate coated figs and energy bars, and you can get bread or crispbread as well as yoghurt and other desserts that include figs. There are celebrity branded fig-based marinades and glazes available too, but perhaps what’s more surprising is the range of non-food goods that claim to be enhanced by their fig or fig leaf content.
The choice of fig infused candles and diffusers seems limitless and washing-up liquid, room sprays and a plethora of cosmetics are available too. A high class organic farm shop in the Four Shires has it own “ Natural Fig Leaf” range of body washes and lotions, the benefit of which is presumably meant to come from the enzymes the fig leaves contain, because in no way can they be described as aromatic.
And what about the fig leaf’s other claim to fame – to be labelled for ever as a not-very- efficient method of hiding some embarrassing or distasteful act or object? Adam and Eve were supposed to have used fig leaves as a hasty cover-up when they became inordinately shy after eating the wrong sort of fruit, so fig leaves have acquired a symbolism over the centuries, particularly in the world of art.
In Ancient Greek and Roman art male nudity was common, but nakedness was considered offensive to later cultures, and fig or other leaves were often added to classical sculptures and paintings in the name of propriety. When social views changed again this modesty foliage was often removed, sometimes damaging the original artwork.
During the Renaissance, heroic figures were once again portrayed unclothed. A classic example is Michaelangelo’s David, but his nudity offended the Victorians. Queen Victoria was presented with a plaster cast of the famous statue, but was apparently shocked by his appearance, so a plaster fig leaf was made to hang on strategically placed hooks whenever a royal visit was expected. David now stands proud in the V&A with his fig leaf housed separately in its own case on the back of his plinth.
The fig and the fig tree have occupied a prominent place in history for thousands of years and are still popular today. The plant is attractive and versatile with many useful properties, although the leaves are now valued more for their chemical composition than their potential for camouflage and the fruit is nutritious with many dietary benefits – if only Adam and Eve had just stuck to eating figs!=